Bakery Review: Glutenus Minimus, Belmont

I have been meaning to try Glutenus Minimus for about three months, but can never find a reason to swing by.  Tucked off the beaten path, near downtown Belmont, Glutenus Minimus is a gluten-free bakery with a wide array of products, including breads, baked goods and ready-made mixes.

They do not use the front of the bakery well: the layout makes it difficult to peruse their many offerings.  The counter is so far forward that it is hard to queue up.  The bread is stocked off to one side kind of behind the counter.  The ready mixes are behind the door and next to the register. 

There are no prices on the mixes or any of baked goods, nor is there a board anywhere in the bakery stating their prices.  Gluten-free products can be expensive, so I like to budget accordingly while waiting in line rather than waiting for the cashier to announce a total.

Before heading over, I checked out some of the reviews on yelp.com.  They were consistent with my experience: the attitude of the staff varies greatly.  One of the women working at the counter was very bright and sunny.  She was willing to make suggestions and seemed to know which items would be suitable for egg or dairy allergies.  However, the cashier was a little surly and seemed generally annoyed to be there.

The sugar cookie was ok.  The texture was a little dense and crumbly.  There was a distinct bean flavor, which always leaves a strange after-taste.  The cookie was not sugary, so the icing and sugar crystals on top made the cookie a satisfying but not overwhelmingly sweet treat.  The recipe could use a little tweaking, but overall it was not a bad cookie.

The coconut key lime cake was delicious.  Gluten-free or not, this was a superior cake.  It the flavors were really well-balanced.  The coconut and lime flavors were prominent, but not overwhelming.  The cake itself had a smooth texture and was very moist, even after being on the counter over night.  There was no aftertaste.  The icing glaze was delicious and held lots of toasted coconut goodness to the top of the cake.  Definitely try this cake. 

The price tag for both items was surprisingly reasonable, just $4.56 for both.

Overall, while this bakery could use a little more business-savvy presentation, the baked goods are flavorful and fresh.  The prices are reasonable.  It’s definitely a great fledgling bakery and a great addition to gluten-free options here in the Boston area.

Restaurant Review: Sportello, I really wanted to love it

Fresh Pasta

Image via Wikipedia

I used to love restaurant week.  It was a chance to try finer dining establishments around Boston at a decent discount.  I liked to try restaurants generally out of my price range and then I would be more likely to go there and spend the extra money for a special occasion.  However, it doesn’t seem that the restaurants see it this way.  The last few restaurant week experiences have been disappointing.  The most disappointing of all: my trip to Sportello. 

I really wanted to be enchanted by Sportello.  I had heard great things and went in with a positive mindset.

The space itself feels a little clinical, but neat and bright.  The concept is a high-end lunch counter.  Most of the seats are stools along a counter top, like a sushi bar.  There were a few normal tables around the room.  The wooden stools were uncomfortable and a little too close together (I kept bumping elbows on either side).  If you want to have a nice conversation / romantic dinner with a little space, reserve one of the tables.

The restaurant week menu was very different from the regular menu, which is fine, but it clearly strained the kitchen to juggle both the restaurant week and regular menu.  Why do places make a restaurant week menu?  Why don’t they just use some of the items from their regular menu?  In my experience, the special menus just end up being poorly executed.  This was no exception. 

The waitress was reserved, but nice.  When I started asking about wine, you could see her perk up a bit.  She gave me a great introduction to a Chiampi wine (very nice). 

Our waitress seemed pretty knowledgeable about food allergies.  When I mentioned my allergy, she was immediately able to point out suitable menu items.  I was surprised that Sportello has gluten-free pasta and bread.  They do not mention it anywhere on their website.  I don’t know why you wouldn’t promote that.   Not many places stock g/f pasta!   

In fact, the waitress didn’t even mention that they also have g/f bread.  After the first course, a gluten-free roll arrived.  Apparently, since they had to bake it upon request, our waitress didn’t want me to be looking for the bread, since she was unsure how long it would take to bake, which was just fine, it was a great surprise.

The bread was probably one of the high points of the meal.  The bread was delicious.  Served warm, it was like soft biscotti, just a little sweet with a little caraway in it. I wish they sold more in the bakery area.

For my three courses, I tried arugula salad with shrimp, followed by lamb ragout with fettuccine and finally, a flourless chocolate cake.  Husband started with white bean soup, followed by pork shoulder and finally an assortment of cookies. 

First course: husband said his soup was good, but verging on too salty.  My salad was inedible.  I don’t like sending things back, so I tried to eat it, but it was just so overwhelmingly salty that I had to send it back. They brought me another one, which was much better, but it was still a mediocre dish.  The dressing was just a bland olive oil and the shrimp was cut too finely to provide the dish with flavor and impact. 

My pasta with lamb ragout was really tasty.  I don’t normally like lamb, but this was very tender.  I found myself wishing for a bit more seasoning on this dish (they don’t supply salt and pepper on the counter).  The g/f pasta was flavorful, and a little egg-y, which was great.  It was really good pasta, maybe they make it themselves?  It would be awesome if this was available in the bakery.

Husband said that the pork shoulder was nice, but lukewarm.  He said if it was any colder, he would have sent it back, just for safety. He balked at doing so, because we had already sent something back.  We honestly were not trying to be picky; the food was poorly executed.

Husband ordered a vanilla latte with his dessert, which was exceptionally good.  They really use good quality coffee, milk and syrup.  It blew Starbucks out of the water.  He praised the cookies. 

My flourless chocolate cake with cherry compote was good.  The cake was straight out of the fridge.  The flavor was good, it was not overly sweet: I think at room temperature, it would have been perfect. The cherry compote served with the cake was amazing.  I could have eaten that by the bowlful.  In fact, I checked to see if by chance they sold it by the jar in the bakery (they don’t, drat).

As we left, we checked out their bakery area.  It had lots of gluten-free choices, including macaroons, meringues and chocolates.  The waitress suggested a peanut butter and chocolate cripsy bar, but I wasn’t sure if the crisped cereal was really gluten-free, so I ordered a butter crunch for later (tasty).  I was told that Husband’s lemon meringue cupcake was just ok; the sponge was a little dense for his taste and the lemon was hard to taste. 

While I will go back to the bakery, I am not sure I would be willing to splash out the cash to give dinner there another try. 

On a side note, I can’t believe I need to say this to a restaurant helmed by a woman, but please put in an appropriate sanitary disposal receptacle in the ladies’ room. 

g/f friendly: 5 out of 5

food taste and quality: 3 out of 5

An Interview with Gillian’s Foods

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet the family behind Gillian’s Foods and see where their tasty pantry staples and baked goods are produced.   Available all over Massachusetts, the United States and even internationally, I was expecting to pull up to a large, intimidating factory.  I was pleasantly surprised to find Gillian’s Foods is located in a family neighborhood, across from a park.  They occupy a large section of a small commercial building.

Having not interviewed anyone since high school Model U.N., I was a little apprehensive, but immediately relaxed a little upon meeting Gillian: she is affable with a bright smile and a passion for the family business.  Chef Bob, Gillian’s father, comes in and out of the room, sharing insights as he continues to manage the operations in the bakery. 

I sat down with Gillian to hear a little about this company.

Q: How did Gillian’s Foods get its start?

A: Gillian’s started 16 years ago, after I was diagnosed with Celiac at age 6.  Unsatisfied with the replacement gluten-free products available on the market place at that time, Chef Bob (a/k/a dad) set out to create better gluten-free bread.

Chef Bob experimented in his home kitchen developing recipes and worked with Children’s Hospital Boston to bring those recipes to taste test at their celiac support groups.

Q: Did Chef Bob embark upon his quest for better gluten-free products with a company in mind?

A: We wanted to bring tasty gluten-free products to the market.  16 years ago, when we first started, the options were extremely limited.  We started as a mail order business and it grew from there.  With the increased awareness of gluten-free diets, our products are available in stores, restaurants and of course, online.

Um, I kind of want a pneumatic pump to fill baking tins!

Q: Your website mentions Chef Bob got his start in the restaurant business, what is his background like?

A: Chef Bob is a trained chef, who has worked in a number of Boston restaurants, specializing in Italian, classic American and seafood.

Q:Gluten-free products are a lot more visible now than they were even two years ago.  How has that affected your business?  Have you experienced growth despite the recession?

A: Despite the recession, we are still growing.  Stores are always reviewing their sales to determine which products continue to appeal to consumers.  Gluten-free is popular: the market is growing.  Stores will give you a chance as long as you meet their guidelines for everyday low pricing.  Consumer affordability is very important.

Q:How do you decide what products to make?

A: We started out with the main products for a house, the things a family keeps stocked in their pantry: pasta, breadcrumbs, croutons, and breads.  Once we had the basics down, we started branching out.

Our newest products are pies, cakes and cookie dough.

Our customers are important to us: we really try to listen to customer feedback to improve our products and come up with ideas for new products.  We are dedicated to helping our customers.

Next on the list, we are in the research and development process for cookies and whoopee pies, which would be packaged and sold individually in vending machines.  We are hoping to get those onto to college campus.

We are also looking into developing a stuffing.

Look at those mixers!

Q: What is the process for coming up with a new product?

A: It starts with an idea.  Once we have the idea, we check the market, to see which, if any companies are making such a product.  We also look for consumer feedback.

The next phase is research and development.  We develop and test various versions.  When we were working on our new chocolate cake, we wanted it to be less crumbly, so we worked with a baker from Johnson & Wales to get the product just right.

After that, a nutritional analysis is performed on the product.  Packaging and labeling materials are developed and then finally, the product goes to markets.

It takes anywhere from 1-2 years for a new product to hit the marketplace.

Q: What advice do you have for gluten-free bakers at home?

A: Baking is a science, not an art.  Use scales instead of measuring cups for accuracy.  Use the recipe, not your heart.

Q: Where can someone find your products?

A: Gillian’s products are always available on our website and are stocked at a lot of grocery stores, including Shaw’s and Whole Foods.  Our products are also used in the gluten-free menu of Not Your Average Joe’s, the Ninety Nine restaurants, Legal Seafoods and Burton’s Grill.

Q: Any tips for the family of a person recently diagnosed with celiac?

A: It’s not the end of the world; it’s a healthier way of eating.

Be open: try everything.

Gluten-free products are never going to be like wheat, they are made with rice.

Q: Any places you like to eat?

A: Well, there is still a fair amount of ignorance out there about food allergies, but that is changing.  The Danvers House of Pizza now has a really good gluten-free pizza crust.

____________________________________________________________________

Gillian also showed me around their facility.  As you may be able to see from the pictures, it’s immaculate.  The bakery area was spotless.  Even the refrigerators were neatly and clearly labeled to avoid any cross-contamination.

Those ovens look like walk-in freezers.

As I left, Gillian gave me a product still in the research and development stage: chocolate whoopee pie.  The cake is the same recipe as their new chocolate cakes.  I brought the whoopee pie home and split it with my husband.  I immediately regretted that decision, as it meant that I had less whoopee pie.  I almost reached over and grabbed the other half out of his hand.

The cake was so good.   It was not overly sweet and the rich chocolate-y taste of the cake was well-balanced by the sweet vanilla icing in the middle.  I cannot wait until these become available on the market.  I hope they will sell them on their website and not just in vending machines.

Recipe: Chicken Parmesan

 

I know it sounds esoteric, but I really like making my husband a really nice dinner.  He loves Italian food, so last week, I made chicken parmesan.  It’s been a long time since I made chicken parmesan.  I love it, but it is rather time consuming, so I always pass it over for something easier.  I don’t really have a favorite chicken parm recipe: I just kind of throw things together.  The polenta is a nice change from pasta, though not necessarily any more waistband friendly.

For the chicken:

½ cup breading flour* or cornstarch

dash of cayenne

2 eggs, beaten

2 T milk

1 cup gluten-free breadcrumbs (I like Orgran or Gillian’s)

1 tsp dried basil, crushed

1 tsp dried parsley, crushed

1 tsp onion powder

½ tsp paprika

crushed red pepper: ½ tsp for a less spicy dish, if you want some heat add about 1½ tsp

salt and pepper, to taste

jar of marinara

sliced or shredded mozzarella

2 T butter

oil for frying (preferably a vegetable oil)

*My breading flour is the remnants of any left over mixes / flours in my kitchen.  It doesn’t need to rise, so the ratios don’t really matter.

For the Polenta:

3 cups chicken broth

1 cup polenta meal

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 T butter

salt and pepper, to taste

Veggies:

1 leek, halved and thinly sliced

1 large yellow squash, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

The Recipe:

1. In three shallow dishes, prepare the coatings for the chicken.

Tray 1: breading flour / cornstarch, cayenne and a little salt and pepper.

Tray 2: whisked together eggs and milk.

Tray 3: breadcrumbs, basil, parsley, crushed red pepper, onion powder and paprika.

Start the polenta by putting the chicken broth on to boil.

2. Make sure the chicken tendons are removed from the breasts or tenders.  If you need to cut them out, simply grab the visible end of the tendon.  Holding a small blade, held at a low angle, pull at the tendon, separating the tendon from the meat.

Left: the three breading trays Middle: removing any tendons Right: flattening the chicken

3. Place the chicken between two sheets of wax paper and beat with a meat mallet until thin and even.  The purpose of this is to make sure the chicken cooks evenly and cooks through before the breading gets burnt.  This is especially important when using thicker chicken breasts.

4. Dredge the chicken in the breading flour then the eggs and finally the breadcrumbs.  Turn on the broiler.

5. The broth is probably boiling by now, so slowly stir in the polenta and turn down the heat to a low simmer. Keep your eye on this and stir frequently.

6. In a small saucepan, warm a little butter and olive oil.  Add the garlic, allow to sweat for a minute, then add the leeks and squash.  Stir occasionally.

Left: the veggies Right: the frying chicken and simmering polenta

7. Heat the butter and oil in a large skillet.  Cook the chicken until crisp.

8. When the chicken is cooked, pour the oil out of the pan.  Add the chicken back in.  Top with the marinara sauce and mozzarella.  Place under the broiler for 3-5 minutes, until the cheese is melted and bubbly.

9. While the chicken is under the broiler, add the cheese and butter to the polenta.

 

Bon Appetit!

 

Product Review: Udi’s Cinnamon Rolls

Cinnamon Roll

Image by pamramsey via Flickr

 Udi’s Cinnamon Rolls are really tasty.   Thirty seconds in the microwave, a little squirt of cinnamon cream cheese frosting and a great gluten-free breakfast is ready. The cinnamon roll itself is less buttery than most cinnamon rolls (like Cinnabon or Pillsbury). The bread has a strong cinnamon flavor and is not too sweet. The bread has a palatable, chewy texture and good flavor.  As with many gluten-free breads, the roll is a bit more dense than would be expected of a regular gluten-y product.  Udi’s Cinnamon Rolls remind me of monkey bread or a yeasted coffee cake / cinnamon bread.  The cinnamon cream cheese frosting is tasty, but I do wish that they would rethink the packaging.

There are four cinnamon rolls in a box. However, the frosting comes in two large packets, rather than four small ones. So if you eat one at a time, you end up with a half of a packet kind of oozing around, just waiting to leak onto whatever it is sitting on. I was slightly disappointed to find the frosting on the thin side, which I suppose is good for squeezing out onto the roll, but I found myself wishing for that familiar cream cheese-y, thick frosting from Cinnabon.

I ended up spreading a little cream cheese around on the roll and then squeezing out the Udi’s frosting on top. Then it is much more like Cinnabon frosting.

When I first saw the packaging, my jaw dropped at the 330 calories per roll. After having had one for breakfast every day for the better part of a week, I can honestly say that the initial calorie punch does not come from sugar that will leave you hungry an hour later. These are satisfying: after eating the cinnamon roll in the morning, I did not have my normal mid-morning snack(s).

Strawberry Chipotle Preserves (via local kitchen)

This looks like a great canning project! It kind of reminds me of the strawberry jalepeno jam that Friendly Toast serves with its four cheese fries! I can’t wait to give it a try!

Strawberry Chipotle Preserves Can you believe that I don't have a single jar of strawberry jam left in the garage pantry? I feel like I spent half of last summer preserving strawberries, but in reality, I guess not: there was this Ferberesque strawberry rhubarb jam, but I made it in San Francisco and left it with my friend Christina; there was this Can Jam strawberry rhubarb & caramelized onion jam, but I made that way back in March with frozen berries (sensing a trend, h … Read More

via local kitchen

Restaurant Review: Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro

When friends come from NYC, I try to take them to a really good restaurant to show them that we Bostonians also appreciate and have access to good food too. (Why does NYC get all the east coast food credit?)  So, when my friend came up from NYC for a visit, I decided to take him to the über-trendy Liberty Hotel for a drink at Clink and dinner at Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro.

BHB has that rare ambiance, sophisticated and chic without being stuffy.  It’s refreshingly simple.   I would like to replicate the white and black tile floor in the kitchen of my future home – it’s chic yet homey.   Instead of a T.V., the bar’s central feature is a beautiful fireplace.  BHB is small and intimate: the perfect place for catching up with friends and actually being able to hold a conversation.

BHB focuses on local, organic ingredients; reflected in its changing menu. So I was not surprised to see that the menu was slightly different from the summer offerings.  In fact, I was actually surprised by how many items (mostly appetizers) I recognized from my last visit.

I mentioned to the waitress that I had a gluten allergy. She seemed a little tentative about suggesting dishes, but she was happy to go back to the kitchen and confirm my dinner choice was/could be made gluten-free.

I ordered the chicken with Brussels sprouts and sweet potato puree, mostly because I hate(d) Brussels sprouts. I have always hated Brussels sprouts.  I remember my mother forcing me to choke down bitter, mushy Brussels sprouts as a child.  Just trying to eat them used to make me gag.  So, when the waitress recommended either the pork shoulder or the chicken with Brussels sprouts, I decided to grit my teeth and give Brussels sprouts another try.

Shortly after realizing how limited my restaurant choices would be as a gluten-free diner, I developed a habit of going back and trying foods I hated as a child / teen.  Having celiac has actually made me more adventurous about my food choices.

And I am so glad I did opt to given Brussels sprouts another try.  These Brussels sprouts were amazing.  I wanted to ask for the recipe.  They were roasted with bacon and sage and maybe some shallot.  Roasting them definitely helped with the unappealing texture by adding a little crisp.  The smoky flavor of the bacon mellowed the bitterness of the Brussels sprouts nicely.

The chicken was well seasoned, though I was disappointed by the gummy skin.  The chicken would have been perfect if the skin had been a bit crispy.  The plate was rounded out by a delicious sweet potato puree.  The cinnamon flavor in the puree was a nice counterpoint to the smoky / slightly bitter Brussels sprouts.

Husband had the scallops and cleaned his plate.  My friend had the cod and said it was delicious.

After dinner, we all had desserts.  BHB makes its own ice cream, so I tried the cream cheese ice cream and wow.  It was really delicious.  However, it was so sweet and creamy, I found myself wishing for a sprinkling of cinnamon or nutmeg for balance.  Husband had a lemon tart and my friend tried the toffee pudding.  Both of those desserts were also declared delicious.

Overall, this is a great restaurant, a little on the pricey side, but well worth the trip and price if you are looking for a great, special meal in a relaxed atmosphere.

g/f friendly: 4 out of 5

food quality and taste: 5 out of 5

Product Review: Life is Good Brown Rice Bread

Life is Good Brown Rice Bread was the first gluten-free bread I tried.  When husband picked up the loaf off the shelf, he got a funny look on his face and silently handed me the loaf.  It weighed a lot.  When I tried to give a little squish squish, I got nothing.  It was like squeezing a brick wrapped in felt.  I did not get a good feeling about the product. 

When we got home, I made some grilled cheese sandwiches.  As soon as I bit into the bread, I started to cry.  No joke.    Life was not good.  Not knowing where to shop or what options were available, I was devastated that this was the bread I might be forced to eat for the rest of my life.

This bread is awful.  It’s dense and unpalatable.  When you bite into the bread, even when slathered in butter and cheese, it’s like chewing on raw flour.  It’s dry and the texture is gritty. The flavor is really weird: like cardboard with fruit juice poured on it. 

It has not improved in the intervening two years.  If you have any other options at the store, even if they are more expensive, cough up that money if you can, or just not buy bread.  Your money is better spent on just about any other product.  This bread sucks.

This bread makes me as sad as the little girl on the left!

Restaurant Review: Stearns & Hill Bistro

Located in downtown Melrose, Stearns & Hill Bistro serves up a range of comfort foods at reasonable prices. 

The décor looks a little formal, but the atmosphere is relaxed and unpretentious.  The décor is simple: wood paneled walls, white table clothes, comfortable seating and an unusual pressed tin ceiling.                                                                           

The bar has ample seating and standing room.  There is a nice little partition between the bar and the dining rooms.  It’s not completely closed off, but does keep husband from watching sports during dinner. 

Stearns & Hill does not have a gluten-free menu.  However, on each visit, the waitstaff have been really accommodating and very nice about going back to the kitchen to double-check my order, if needed.  Some waiters know the menu / allergies better than others and were able to answer ingredient questions off the top of their head.

The waitstaff generally directed me to the wide range of steak and seafood options (those apparently require little modification for a gluten allergy).   

About half the menu is steaks and seafood: so there are a lot of options.  Also, I have been told the kitchen is able to prepare burgers protein style (i.e. – using lettuce instead of a bun). 

All of the fish dishes offer a few methods of preparation, including grilled, pan-seared or blackened, none of which involve gluten.  Hooray for flavor and choices!   The fried options are sadly, not suitable for gluten-free diners. 

Fries themselves are gluten-free; however they are fried in the same fryer as gluten products, so avoid the fries if you are really sensitive.  Luckily there are several sides available and substitution is simple.    Their mashed potatoes are really tasty.   

I have tried three or four fish entrees, soups, and salads.  Each meal was good, though I do wish they would be more adventurous with sauces and seasonings.  The food is fresh and obviously of a good quality.  It’s just not an exciting food.  I always enjoy the dining here, but never think, wow, next time my friend is in town I HAVE to take them here. 

G/F friendly: 4 out of 5

Food Taste and Quality: 3.5 out of 5